The Diocese of Manchester must release internal information on several priests being sued for sexual misconduct, a superior court judge ruled yesterday.
The diocese has until mid-December to release the documents, which were requested as part of several civil lawsuits filed by alleged victims of clergy abuse.
The diocese had asked to have until February to release the material because it wanted to wait until the attorney general’s office had completed its investigation into the church’s handling of sexual abuse complaints. Patrick McGee, diocese spokesman, declined to say why yesterday.
“We’ve cooperated fully with the AG,” McGee said. “While there is an ongoing investigation, we just thought it was in our best interest to produce that material after.”
Attorney Mark Abramson requested the internal information, which he said includes documents and answers to nearly 1,000 questions, nearly six months ago. He said the church’s attempt to postpone releasing its internal documents contradicts its insistence that it wants to do right by victims of abuse.
“They are desperately trying to hide from the public these documents,” he said. “This is going to open up the vaults. This is going to produce the documents that will tell my clients what has happened. The public has the right to know what is in their secret files, and it’s going to be very embarrassing for them.”
McGee would say little about the requested material other than to dispute Abramson’s claim that it includes anything more than answers to several questions.
The church initially had until late October to produce the material. When that date arrived, the church’s attorneys asked for a four-month extension, citing the attorney general’s investigation. Judge Robert Lynn of Hillsborough County Superior Court denied that request yesterday.
Attorney General Philip McLaughlin announced earlier this year that his staff is evaluating how the church’s leadership has handled complaints of abuse lodged in recent decades. He has not said when he anticipates releasing his findings, but he must do it before the end of December, when he leaves office.
Yesterday McLaughlin declined to say how the documents Abramson requested may or may not be related to his investigation.
Nearly five dozen other victims have sued the church since February for alleged abuse, but all have settled, a process that kept negotiations and details private. Abramson was discussing settlements with the church but decided this summer to go to trial when talks broke off.
A trial puts more material in the public’s hands. This week, Attorney Peter Hutchins settled nearly 60 cases of clergy abuse with an acknowledgement that he had not even looked at enough church records to know how it had initially responded to victims complaints.
Abramson said his clients want him to answer that question for them.
The Rev. Edward Arsenault issued a news release yesterday that said the church will comply with the judge’s order. Also in that news release was an inaccurate suggestion that nine of Abramson’s cases had been dismissed.
Lynn ordered the lawsuits, which currently identify the victims as only John Doe, could not proceed unless they contain the victims’ true names. But Lynn gave Abramson 30 days to do so.
The church’s news release, which went to its usual roster of about 30 reporters around the state, said only that Lynn had granted the diocese’s request to dismiss nine of Abramson’s lawsuits.
Abramson said he will immediately comply with Lynn’s order. “(Arsenault) is going to be sorely disappointed when he sees that every one of my clients is willing to go forward,” he said.
He accused the diocese of trying to discourage his clients by purposely misrepresenting the judge’s order in a widely circulated press release.
“It’s absolutely incorrect, and I am stunned by it,” Abramson said after reading the diocese’s statement. “Despite all their care for victims, this was meant to intimidate these people. This revictimizes them all over again.”
McGee confirmed Abramson’s understanding of the judge’s order but said the church’s news release did not misstate it.
“I don’t think it’s misleading,” McGee said. “My understanding is that you can’t file as John Doe. I don’t know if he’s going to name his clients. I don’t know what he’s going to do. All we know is that the judge granted our motion to dismiss, and that’s what the release says.”
McGee said he did not feel compelled to spell out the 30-day extension the judge has given Abramson because he did not know whether Abramson would comply.